Doing the Impossible
Just prior to the Ascension, “When they saw Him, they [the Apostles] worshiped, but they doubted” (Mt 28:17). What is it that the Apostles doubt? Do they doubt that Jesus is true God and true man? They saw Him suffer and bleed, and at least one of them saw Him die. No, they could not really doubt Jesus’ humanity. They also worshiped Jesus. Coming from a culture and a religion having zero tolerance for idolatry or divinizing humans, it is hard to imagine that the Apostles were worshiping Jesus but doubting His divinity at the same time. They had to be totally convinced of Jesus’ divinity before they would ever think about worshipping Him. So what did they doubt? It was not Jesus they doubted, but themselves. The Apostles knew that Jesus would leave them, for He made this clear at the Last Supper. The prospect of Jesus’ departure had to have been quite daunting. They had to know that the mission of Jesus, calling people to repent and believe in Him, would fall to them.
When Jesus says to the Apostles as He ascends “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,” they had to wonder how eleven uneducated men with no special talents could actually be given such a mission. It would not have been just doubt running through their minds but a profound fear as well. All they had to do is look at what happened to John the Baptist and to Jesus Himself. This evangelizing – calling people to repentance and proclaiming of the Kingdom – was dangerous stuff. But it was not just what happened to John and Jesus that would have been disturbing: Jesus tells them before ascending “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Again, the global mission entrusted to a mere eleven men brought much personal doubt, but also the call to be witnesses that would have confirmed their fears.
Why? Because the word for witness also means martyr. The Apostles would have understood Jesus to be saying, “you will be my [martyrs] in Jerusalem and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Given an impossible job that comes with suffering, torture, and death, most of us would seek a change of careers. But the Apostles knew that they were not Jesus’ employees and He was not giving them a mere job. No, they were chosen by Jesus, they were called. As Apostles, they were sent, not just to baptize and to preach, but to make Christ present wherever they went and to whomever they met. We all have this same basic mission. How each of us does this in our own lives is our vocation, either to married life, unmarried life, religious life, or priestly life.
Remain single the rest of my life? Be married to one person for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death do us part? Forsake marriage, renounce possessions, and obey my superiors? Shepherd hundreds or thousands of families, preaching and teaching, and making Christ present to others? No matter how we look at it, every vocation involves what seems to be an impossible mission that entails some degree of suffering. Perhaps this one reason why we have a crisis in the priesthood, in religious life, and in marriage as well. Being what God calls us to be and doing what He asks us to do seem impossible. We see this in our society’s attitude toward the four vocations.
For single people, abstinence and chastity are mocked and dismissed. We hear it’s impossible for the unmarried to remain pure, so immoral behavior is seldom discouraged. But how did previous generations do the impossible? We hear it is impossible for a man and woman to marry and remain faithful for the rest of their lives. But how did previous generations do the impossible? We hear it is impossible to expect someone to devote their entire lives totally and completely to Christ. But how did previous generations do the impossible?
The answer to these questions lies in how the Apostles were able to do what they did. They were not much different than any of us, yet this did not hinder them or stop them from doing things far beyond what we are called to do. So what was their secret? They did not surrender to fear and doubt, but instead they turned to prayer. They prayed together for nine days. Their overcoming fear and doubt and their prayer bore profound fruit: the Holy Spirit. It worked for the Apostles, so it can work for us as well. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can certainly do what God asks of us.